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The Casey-Rosewood Instructional Center was the RMN’s all-purpose training base for enlisted and noncommissioned officers, with an entry-level boot camp at its southern end, a set of training schools in its northern and western quadrants, and the more esoteric advanced training facilities to the east.

And it was quickly apparent that the boot camp section of the complex had been designed and built solely for the purpose of killing naïve young recruits like Travis Uriah Long.

Travis’s first three weeks there were a nightmare. Literally. They were a half-comatose, pulse-pounding, muscle-aching, walking, marching, being-continually-yelled-at nightmare.

The order and structure he’d always yearned for were there, just as he’d hoped. But it was a structure he could feel choking the life out of him. Morning began before the sun was even up, with a loud bugle call or an even more raucous banging of metal bars on metal trash can lids. Once the noise started, the thirty men and women in their respective ends of the barracks had exactly twenty seconds to scramble out of their bunks and stand at rigid attention along the central aisle, and heaven help the maggot who missed the deadline, or even made it in time but was the last one in position. The platoon commander, Gunner’s Mate First Class Johnny Funk, knew more curses than Travis had ever heard, and had the volume and tone control an operatic singer would have envied.

By the end of the first week Travis probably would have quit if quitting had been an option. Several of the other boots, he gathered from the muttered curses and soft moans of aching muscles in the night, felt the same way.

But quitting wasn’t possible. Not yet. They’d signed up for five T-years, and by God and by First Lord of the Admiralty Admiral Thomas P. Cazenestro, RMN (ret), they would put in those five years or die trying. Or so GM1 Funk said.

Funk had given them his full name the very first time he’d faced them, and had all but dared anyone to make jokes about it. A couple of the braver or more foolhardy boots had done so, though they were smart enough to offer their humor where neither Funk nor any of the other platoon commanders or drill instructors could overhear.

Such private triumphs were short-lived. GM1 Funk found out about every one of them, and the humorists’ muscles had ached extra hard for the next few days from the dozens of additional workout reps the unamused platoon commander had put them through. No one made any such jokes now.

Which was hardly unexpected. People didn’t make jokes about the devil incarnate, and by the end of the second week Travis was convinced that that was who GM1 Funk truly was. The man was up ahead of them every morning and was the last angry face they saw before staggering to the barracks and collapsing into comas in their bunks. His brain was an encyclopedia of the General Orders, the Manual of Arms, Uniform Code of Conduct, ship types, weapon types, ship systems, ship terminology, history, officer lists, and every other bit of information that anyone could possibly want. He could see a twitching lip two ranks away, could hear the smallest snicker four ranks away, and could almost literally draw blood with the serrated edge of his voice.

There was no possible way that Travis could ever become accustomed to such a hell. And yet, to his numbed disbelief, by the end of the third week he could feel himself actually doing so. The aches became fewer and less intense, he started being less overwhelmed by the flood of information Funk and the other instructors firehosed at them, and the rhythms and cadences of the marching were starting to stick in his brain stem, freeing his higher functions to drop into a neutral state that almost qualified as extra sleep.

By the end of the fourth week he knew all twenty-five men and fourteen women in his platoon better than he’d ever known anyone in his life. Better than he’d ever realized he could know anyone. He’d heard their stories and their histories; knew their strengths and quirks and weaknesses; knew which ones he could trust and which he couldn’t and which he needed to steer wide of when they got that certain gleam in their eye, because when their latest scheme or infraction fell apart he didn’t want to be anywhere inside GM1 Funk’s blast radius.

By the end of the fifth week something in his brain abruptly clicked, and the patterns and relationships inherent in the mass of information being poured into the boots’ brains suddenly made sense. From that point on, the classwork was under the same kind of control as the marching and pushups and obstacle course: not exactly easy, but no longer on the edge of hopeless. It was the point where Travis finally and truly began to believe that he not only could, but would get through this.

At the end of the sixth week, the whole thing was nearly snatched away.

Predictably, it was because of Chomps.

Charlie Townsend had picked up the nickname Chomps early in the platoon’s nickname-attaching process. He was from Sphinx, shorter and squatter than average, but immensely strong and invariably cheerful. Unfortunately, his cheerfulness bled over into the forbidden area of commander baiting, and he caused the platoon more than its fair share of midnight marches and snap inspections.

The man also had an enormous appetite. The son of assisted immigrants from the Kismet System, he had the super-active metabolism of someone whose ancestors had been genetically engineered for heavy-gravity environments. There weren’t that many people on Sphinx, even now, but Sphinxians appeared to be overrepresented in the Navy. Four of the mess men were Sphinxians themselves, and at first they’d made sure to surreptitiously heap extra food on Chomps’s meal trays, even though they were supposed to dole out exactly the same rations to everyone. That ended midway through the third week when some by-the-book officer wandered into eyeshot and ordered the servers back to proper procedure.

Chomps’s countermove was to make sure he was the first one in the platoon to go through the mess line, wolf down his food, then slip back into line and collect a second meal before the last boot made it through and service was closed down. Again, the mess crew played along; again, some wandering rule-stickler caught on and ended the game.

For the next week, in the quietest part of the night, it was possible to hear the sound of soft stomach rumbling across the men’s side of the barracks. The various meals were supposed to provide sufficient nutrition for anyone, even a Sphinxian, but Travis wasn’t sure he bought that.

Chomps was absolutely sure he didn’t buy it, and there was no doubt that he was losing weight. In fact, his face had begun to look almost gaunt as he suffered his deprivation in increasingly grouchy silence, his cheerful attitude fading like the charm of mess hall borscht.

And then, sometime late in the fourth week, he found the final card he could play.

If they wouldn’t give him the food he needed, he would steal it.

Travis knew nothing about it at the time, of course. As he’d been learning about the rest of the platoon, they’d likewise been learning about him, and the last thing anyone planning mischief wanted was “Rule-stickler” Long hearing about it.

That was fine with Travis. He had enough stress on mind and body without dragging his ethics on a twenty-five-klick march of their own.

It was also why his first indication that something was up was as he walked past Chomps’s locker shortly before lights-out one evening and caught the delicate aroma of chocolate chip cookies.

His first reflexive thought was that he was having an olfactory flashback to the cookies that had been racked at the dessert station at lunch that afternoon. But no—this aroma was very real.

And unfortunately, there was only one possible explanation for the presence of food in the barracks.

He moved slowly down the line of lockers, sniffing carefully, wondering who the thief was and what he, Travis, would do when he found him out. Food of any sort was absolutely forbidden in barracks, and the penalty for theft was even more severe. Those were the rules, and Travis had always tried his best to follow the rules.

The problem was that such obedience wasn’t as straightforward as it used to be. Over the past few weeks he’d become aware that there were other rules in force in the Royal Manticoran Navy, rules that might not be in the manual but were just as binding.

And at the top of that unwritten list of unwritten rules was that you supported the men and women of your platoon. No matter what.

But this was theft. This wasn’t just an infraction of a minor rule. This was a real, actual crime.

“Hey, Stickler.”

Travis jerked and spun around. Chomps was standing at the end of the line of lockers, an unreadable expression on his face.

“Chomps,” Travis managed in return.

“Anything wrong?” Chomps asked, his eyes steady on Travis. “You look like you just saw a ghost.”

“Not saw,” Travis corrected, his heart picking up its pace. His body had muscled up a lot in the past few weeks, but Chomps could still eat him for breakfast. “And not a ghost.” Steeling himself, he pointed at Chomps’s locker. “Cookies.”

Chomps’s lip twitched. Probably he was thinking about Travis’s reputation for sticking to the rules. Maybe wondering what it would take to shut him up.

Then, to Travis’s relief, he lowered his eyes and inclined his head.

“Cookies it is,” he admitted. “I guess you hadn’t noticed my stomach isn’t keeping everyone awake anymore.”

Travis felt a flush of annoyance with himself. As a matter of fact, he hadn’t noticed the new level of peace and quiet in the barracks, and he really should have.

“Not much food value in cookies,” he said, some obscure impulse driving him to argue the point.

“No, there isn’t,” Chomps agreed without rancor. “Usually, I just take real food.” He nodded toward his locker. “I brought those back as a thank-you for my team.”

An unpleasant shiver ran up Travis’s back. There was a team?

“Ah,” he said lamely. “I hadn’t thought . . .”

“It’s not like you could sneak into the kitchen all by yourself,” Chomps pointed out. “You need a diversion, for starters, to get the right mess man looking the wrong way. You also need to know what’s happening right after lunch—not a good idea to go on a twenty-five-klick hike with bags of sliced meat hanging under your armpits and breadsticks up your sleeves.”

“Or the obstacle course,” Travis murmured. “Which was what we were supposed to do today.”

“Exactly,” Chomps said, nodding. “Classwork can be tricky, too, depending on how aromatic the stuff is that you took. You don’t want to be sitting in a small room watching an impeller systems deconstruction with salami in your shorts.”

“No,” Travis agreed, the memories of today’s lunch flashing back to mind.

But now he was seeing the images with fresh eyes. Elaine Dunharrow—“Whistler”—bobbling her tray for several seconds before regaining control, with the mess man nearest the swinging door into the kitchen watching in fascinated and nervous anticipation of what would have been an ugly clean-up job. “Shofar” Liebowitz, talking earnestly with the next closest mess man. “Professor” Cyrene and “Betcha” Johnston, standing together in animated conversation right where their bodies would block the view of the door from the platoon commanders’ table.

And a glimpse of a broad back disappearing through the kitchen door, a back Travis had assumed belonged to one of the Sphinxians in the mess crew.

“But the obstacle course is the worst,” Chomps said, flashing one of the smiles that had been his normal expression before the mess hall started starving him. “I did that last week when Professor’s intel went sideways. It wasn’t pretty. He double-checks his facts now.”

“So why are they still here?” Travis asked, waving again toward the locker. “No one was hungry during study time?”

“We couldn’t coordinate with Whistler,” Chomps said. “She’s going to sneak over after lights-out for a little get-together in the shower room.”

Travis winced. Sneaking out of barracks at night. Not the same level of crime as theft, but another serious rule violation.

Chomps caught the wince.

“I guess the question is what you’re going to do now that you know,” he said.

Travis exhaled, his brain feeling like it was running its own obstacle course. A crime . . . but whatever anyone said about the meals, Chomps really did need the additional food. A conspiracy . . . but the Sphinxian really couldn’t do it alone. Loyalty to his platoon . . . but where did that loyalty become a crime in and of itself?

“I don’t—”

And then, from the far side of the row of lockers came the sound of the outer door being slammed open.

“Ten-hut!” Funk barked.

Travis snapped reflexively to attention, his heart suddenly in his throat.

“Long?” Funk shouted over the sound of boots scrambling madly off their bunks or chairs. “Long!”

There was nothing for it.

“Sir, here, Sir!” Travis called back, wondering if he dared take a step or two away from the locker toward the PC’s voice. You weren’t supposed to move a single muscle when at attention, but if Funk came back here and smelled the cookies . . .

It was just as well he didn’t try to take that step. Barely half a second later Funk came storming into view around the end of the lockers, moving faster than usual for this time of night. Whatever the reason for this unexpected visit, it must be important. Maybe important enough that he wouldn’t pause long enough to inhale?

“Get dressed,” Funk growled, his eyes taking in Travis’s undershirt and bare feet. “You’re wanted at—” He broke off, his eyes narrowing as his nostrils flared. “What am I smelling?” he demanded, his voice suddenly cold and dark. “Is that cookies, Recruit Long?”

Chomps’s face had gone pale. But there was nothing to be gained by feigning ignorance.

“Sir, yes, Sir,” Travis said.

Funk turned his gaze onto Chomps, a knowing expression on his face.

“And how exactly did cookies get into this barracks?” he asked, his voice purring with grim anticipation.

Travis took a deep breath. The crime was laid bare, and payment had to be made. But the rule of loyalty to a comrade in need also had to be upheld.

And in that split-second, Travis could think of only one way to satisfy both ethical requirements.

“Sir, I brought them in, Sir,” he said.

Funk’s head snapped back around, his eyes turning from Chomps just in time to miss the Sphinxian’s own suddenly widened eyes.

You brought them in, Recruit Long?” he demanded.

Too late, Travis wondered if this might not have been a good idea.

“Sir, yes, Sir,” he said.

“Really,” Funk said. “Travis Uriah ‘Rule-stickler’ Long. You broke into the mess hall and stole a pile of chocolate chip cookies.”

“Sir, yes, Sir,” Travis said. “Sir, I was hungry, Sir.”

“Uh-huh.” Funk folded his arms across his chest. “How’d you do it?”

Travis’s mouth went dry as he saw the trap laid invitingly in front of him. As Chomps had already pointed out, it was impossible to pull off such a stunt alone. Travis had admitted to the crime; Funk was now fishing for the identities of his confederates.

And he would have them, too, Travis knew. Even if he used the same vague descriptions that Chomps had just given him, Funk would be able to compare notes with the other PCs and piece it together.

Unless Travis, Chomps, and Funk were all wrong about one crucial fact.

“Sir, I went in the side door after lunch, Sir,” he said, his mind racing to stay ahead of his mouth.

“Which side door?”

“Sir, the north door, by all the trash cans, Sir,” Travis said.

Funk snorted.

“The door that’s always locked?” he asked pointedly.

“Sir, the blond mess man always props the door open when he bring out his bags of trash, and he always pauses to take a look at the western sky before he goes back in, Sir,” Travis said. “Sir, I slipped in while he wasn’t looking, Sir.”

“What about the rest of the mess men?” Funk countered, clearly not buying it for a second. “You just tango your way past them?”

“Sir, the others were all in the dining area cleaning up, Sir,” Travis said. “Sir, I put on an apron and kept my back to anyone who came in, Sir.”

“Mm,” Funk said. So far, Travis thought uneasily, he seemed more intrigued than angry. Travis wasn’t sure what to make of that, but it couldn’t be good. “Lucky for you we cancelled that twenty-five-klick hike that was supposed to happen after lunch.”

So now he was fishing for Travis’s intel source. Fortunately, Travis already had the answer for this one.

“Sir, yes, Sir,” he said. “Sir, I noticed you had a second roll at lunch, Sir. Sir, you never do that when there’s a strenuous activity planned, Sir.”

Just visible at the edge of Travis’s peripheral vision, Chomps’s lower jaw had been dropping ever lower as the conversation progressed. Fortunately, Funk seemed to have eyes only for Travis.

“You’re a very clever maggot, Recruit Long,” Funk said, his voice still unnaturally calm. “Good thing we were already on our way to see the CO.” He jerked his head toward the barracks door. “Get dressed. Now.”

Travis had seen Colonel Jean Massingill exactly twice since his arrival at Casey-Rosewood. The first time had been when she addressed and welcomed the new recruits, the second had been when he spotted her getting into an air car on the far side of the obstacle course. On neither occasion had she seemed particularly intimidating.

She was more than making up for that now. And the most unnerving part of it was that, unlike Funk’s standard procedure, she never once raised her voice.

“I presume Gunner’s Mate Funk has already told you what the penalty for food theft was in early wet navies,” she said, her voice calm, her face composed, her eyes seeing far enough through Travis’s face to set the back of his skull on fire. “The thief was flogged around the deck.”

She stopped, apparently expecting some sort of response.

“Ma’am, yes, Ma’am,” Travis said, his mind going completely blank on anything else.

“What was it, some whim?” she suggested. “Some spur-of-the-moment craving for chocolate?”

“Ma’am, I was hungry, Ma’am,” Travis said. The excuse sounded even less plausible now than it had when he’d trotted it out a few minutes ago for Funk. But he still didn’t have anything better to offer.

“Or was it perhaps a return to your old ways?”

Travis blinked.


“Ma’am what?” Funk growled.

“Ma’am, I don’t understand, Ma’am.”

“Really.” Massingill picked up her tablet. “That’s not what Bassit Corcoran testified in court this morning. He says you were part of a gang that attempted to rob a jewelry store in Landing two months ago.”

Travis felt the blood drain from his face. So Bassit had survived the abortive robbery attempt after all. Before Travis’s arrival at Casey-Rosewood he hadn’t had the nerve to hunt for information on Bassit’s fate, and afterward he’d been so busy he’d nearly forgotten about the other teen.

But Bassit clearly hadn’t forgotten him. And whether he’d named Travis in an attempt to cut a deal or whether it was pure spite, the bottom line was that the whole ugly incident had now come home to roost.

And with that, he had no doubt, his five-year enlistment was at an end.

“The colonel’s waiting,” Funk prompted darkly.

“Ma’am, I was briefly associated with Mr. Corcoran, Ma’am,” Travis said, trying to keep his voice from shaking. Suddenly, and almost to his surprise, he realized just how much he wanted to continue this path he’d started. How much he genuinely wanted to serve the Star Kingdom alongside the men and women of his platoon. Now, between Bassit and Chomps, between naïveté and impulsive self-sacrifice, he was going to lose it all. “Ma’am, on that particular night, without my knowledge, he attempted the robbery you spoke of, Ma’am. Ma’am, I was not on the scene at the time, but was in fact speaking with a Navy recruiter, Ma’am.”

“Mm.” If Massingill was impressed, she didn’t show it. “Corcoran further stated that the robbery was your idea. That you were the mastermind behind the plan.”

Travis stared at her. Bassit had said that?

Of course he had. Because from Travis’s new perspective on life, he now realized that what he’d taken to be Bassit’s proud refusal to compromise his beliefs and goals was really nothing more than a self-centered refusal to follow any rules but his own, and to put his own skin ahead of anything else.

One of the first rules of any society was that actions had consequences. If there was any single rule Bassit would try his best to lie his way out of, that would be it.

“Ma’am, no, Ma’am,” Travis said. “I was not involved in any way in the robbery.”

“Because you were talking to a recruiter at the time.”

“Ma’am, yes, Ma’am.”

“Joining the RMN,” Massingill said. “Where you could come to boot camp and steal cookies.”

Travis felt his throat tighten. Again, what could he say?

“Ma’am, yes, Ma’am.”

“Mm,” she murmured again. “He also said you were a travesty of a human being. Rather exotic phrase for a common punk thief. Some private joke between you?”

Travis winced. He’d hoped that hated high school nickname had been left behind. One final gift from his false friend.

“Ma’am, no, Ma’am.”

For a long moment Massingill continued to impale him with her eyes. Then, she nodded microscopically toward the door.

“Wait in the outer office,” she ordered. “Gunner’s Mate Funk will join you shortly.”

“Ma’am, yes, Ma’am.” Executing a crisp about-face, Travis strode back across the office.

So that was it, he told himself bleakly as he opened the door and stepped into Massingill’s outer office. The only question now was how hard the colonel would bring the hammer down on him on his way out.

And how much it would hurt.

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